It’s been 18 days since the NBA’s annual midnight frenzy, 18 days since free agents started flying off the market, and now that the dust has settled, all is quiet. Two top-five members of the free agent class signed long-term extensions on that first evening. Unheralded guys got paid, too. In the nearly two weeks since the moratorium was lifted, over 70 players have either signed or agreed to new contracts. Everybody who’s anybody is off the board.
Except, that is, for Nerlens Noel.
Remember him? A top-20 player in the class? An athletic, still-improving 23-year-old big who can protect the rim, defend the pick-and-roll, finish lobs, rebound and feast on offensive scraps? The same one who, a month and a half ago, was reportedly expected to receive multiple max contract offers?
Yeah, he’s still available. Nobody wants to pay him. And because nobody wants to pay him, the Dallas Mavericks, who hold his rights as a restricted free agent, won’t have to either. The Mavs are playing hardball, which has left Noel and his agent “disappointed,” but there is no reason for Dallas to soften its stance. Noel and his camp have no leverage. Discussions have seemingly stalled. Noel’s agent, Happy Walters, has said that he and Noel are “still waiting on a serious offer.”
But if talks between the Mavericks and Noel have taught us anything, it’s not that the Mavs are cheap; it’s not that they’re brutal, no-nonsense negotiators; it’s that the 2017 offseason has reformed our concept of what “a serious offer” for a center of Noel’s ilk actually is.
Last summer’s cap-spike-induced bonanza toyed with that concept. The NBA’s free agent market revises and reshapes itself every year, and the combined $200 million dropped in the laps of Timofey Mozgov, Bismack Biyombo and Ian Mahinmi blew up the market for bigs. It redefined the supposed “market value” for guys like Noel. It created Noel’s max contract expectations.
But last summer was a fluke, a once-in-a-generation free agency free-for-all. It was not the new norm. Everybody had money, and foolishly felt like they had to sink it into long-term contracts. Because they did, now nobody has money.
And because nobody has money, a player like Nerlens Noel, who in a vacuum is worth more than Mozgov, Biyombo and Mahinmi combined, is still a free agent, and likely won’t come close to touching the contract he hoped to receive entering July.
Noel’s diminishing value is the result of an unfortunate confluence of factors. The free agent market overall has been dry after last summer, and became even dryer when several teams decided to spend like it was last summer during the first week of free agency this year. So nobody has cap room.
Plus, the market for centers is oversaturated. Because 15 teams — literally half of the league — gave three-or-more-year deals to centers a year ago, the field of potential landing spots for Noel is narrower than usual. And those 15 teams don’t include 10 or so others who are already set at center for at least two more years.
And all of this discussion of contracts and free agency avoids the elephant in the room, which is the fact that, as the NBA continues to trend in the direction of small-ball, the center position is going out of style. It’s just not as important to have an imposing big man as it was a decade ago. The league’s most dominant team over the past three seasons has won two titles and broken the NBA’s single-season wins record while cycling in rookie bigs and veterans on one-year contracts. There is still plenty of value in the center position, but not the same value there used to be.
And that’s why Nerlens Noel isn’t the only loser of his own free agency plight. He’s the guinea pig, but he won’t be the last big man to value himself in 2016’s market, only to receive a rude awakening once free agency kicks off.
In fact, he already isn’t the last. The top four centers on The Vertical’s list of Fab 50 Free Agents — Noel, Pau Gasol, Mason Plumlee and Alex Len — all remain unsigned. The $14 million over two years that Atlanta paid to Dewayne Dedmon represents the biggest contract a true center has received this offseason.
Regardless of the money Noel ultimately receives, his struggle should send waves of worry in the direction of next summer’s batch of free agent bigs. That group includes DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Joel Embiid. Lower tiers include Brook Lopez, Clint Capela and Jusuf Nurkic. Not long ago, all six of those players would have been fancying lucrative deals. But will they?
If the 2017 market is any indication, at least a few will come away disappointed. Demand for centers isn’t what it once was, and in the future might not even be what it currently is. Nerlens Noel’s inability to attract interest should spark a recalibration of our concept of what “market value” for a center truly is.